There’s something about most anime (or is it animes?). I hate the disturbing under-age girls, with their squeaky high-pitched voices and a troubling lack of clothing. Then there’s the fact that some shows drag on for ever, with endless action and painful “humor”. Going into Disgaea, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to enjoy any of it. Some peg-legged penguins kept saying “dood” ad nausea and there was a sassy girl a wee bit on the young side wearing hardly anything. The prepubescent protagonist is missing a shirt and has a ridiculous hair cut.
With guarded reluctance, I gave Disgaea a fair shake. After some initial bias, I ended up enjoying the game, and it wasn’t just because of the gameplay, which was akin to the beloved Final Fantasy Tactics. The kooky characters, humorous dialogue and downright bizarre storyline got me hooked. Just don’t expect me to cosplay as any of the weirdoes in the cast.
Laharl, the afore-mentioned shirtless protagonist, is an obnoxious demon brat that wants to become the ruler of the underworld. His daddy used to have that title, but he tragically choked on a black pretzel a few years back. Laharl, along with his equally underdressed vassal, Etna, go out to kick some ass or chew bubblegum. As it turns out, they’re all out of bubblegum. So many other games follow the “save the world from a great evil” archetype that I’ve almost quit RPGs cold turkey. Fortunately, Disgaea doesn’t bother with any of that stuff. A majority of the creatures are demons, who despise the words “love” and “tolerance.” Hero is a dirty word down in the underworld.
All of that begins to change when Flonne, a syrupy-sweet angel in training, ends up in the underworld. She says things like “The power of our friendship is increasing” and “We must all unite our hearts,” which causes the demons and myself to groan. The trio embarks on a number of strange missions, such as rescuing a demon’s pet zombie and stopping a picnic basket thief, as Flonne attempts to make love blossom in the dark underworld. Not in a sexual sense, despite the presence of some large-breasted characters, but in a more profound way. The humor, which takes some getting used to due to its anime-ness, works well due to solid writing, tolerable voice acting and some excellent artwork that accompanies the scenes. Even when the plot takes a plunge into the more ridiculous, with dim-witted humans and some Power Ranger knock-offs, it’s easy to smile at inanity of it all happenings.
As peculiar as the storyline is, the tactical battles also have some distinctive aspects that sets it apart from other games. Up to ten characters can enter the battle through a spawn point at that takes up one grid. In each turn, swords swing, spells fly and simplistic sprites perish, but the snazzy thing is that characters can be swapped in and out as if it were a tag team march. The combo meter also sets Disgaea apart from its ilk. By having characters attack simultaneously, rather than dinking and dunking some damage here and there, the combo meter gradually increases. When a battle is won, rewards are given depending on how high the meter went. This can be anything from badass weapons to cash money, so it pays to plan attacks in minute detail. The problem is that although it rewards creativity and beastly attacks, it punishes sound tactics. If a target dies before the others use their attack, they do nothing. It’s like those old-school RPGs that end up wasting turns just because you already killed a baddie when you chained together a couple attacks.
There are some other nuances to the game that spice things up. Some of the grids are occasionally affected by gems that do anything from killing whoever steps on it in one turn, or doubling the damage. These gems can be moved or destroyed, nullifying the effects. Some maps require careful manipulation, since the gems are often in the opposing sides’ favor. Enemies and allies can be picked up and chucked, so that’s another goofy little wrinkle that keeps things interesting and requires more tactics than just killing the bad guys. Most of the game will be spent in the battles, and that’s partly due to the frustrating manner of leveling up. The only way to gain experience is to kill enemies, and some characters just aren’t made for killing. Even though there is some shared experience at the end of a stage if they survive, the physical fights always end up severely outpacing the less dangerous allies. The strong get stronger while the weak get weaker.
The sheer amount of crap that can be done in-between the fights is what’s most impressive. There are at least a few battles for each of the 13 chapters, and when Laharl isn’t brawling he can explore his castle, talk to his vassals and shop for all sorts of junk. From this main hub, the ridiculously expansive Item World can be accessed. Here, an item in your inventory is chosen and then “entered” by the party. By going through at least ten levels, whether it’s by defeating all the enemies or moving to the exact tile on the floor, the item’s strength can be amped up.
Each item also has a number of residents. By defeating these things, they can be collected and used to beef up weapons even further. They can also be moved around to other items, so like Pokemon, I guess it pays to catch ‘em all (or at least a lot of them). This item world can be incredibly time consuming due to all the different things that can be leveled up. Some stat whores would be in heaven here, but I just found it too boring. Going from stage to stage, none of which are interesting, just grows repetitious. At least the seedy political underbelly of Disgaea is a lot more fun.
This mode, much like the item world, doesn’t have to be accessed too often, but it does make the game easier. Once in a while, a stage can come along and stomp out Laharl and company, so it’s not a bad idea to stay on top of things. The assembly begins when a measure to be voted on is chosen. These vary based on the characters rank, which is improved by taking a promotion exam that pits the lone character against several baddies. Some of the nifty things that can be voted on include diversifying the store’s selection, opening up optional battles or making counterattacks more common. Just picking one of these isn’t enough to get it passed. Next, the senators need to be wined and dined. To put it bluntly, they need to be bribed.
You’re probably as shocked as me that the developers would make an allusion to politicians being corrupt. It ghastly to even make that bold claim. It was difficult when they insulted the most noble profession of all. It’s only a game, I told myself. An anime-type game at that, which made the transgression easier to overlook. Anyways, all the senators are shown in the assembly hall, and their feeling towards you are shown when highlighted. Some “love <3” the characters, and that means their support is a given. Others “loath” the character, while most of them might be on the fence as “leaning no” or “either way.” Giving them items from the inventory helps them see the light. If that doesn’t work and the vote fails to get enough votes, then they can be attacked afterwards to change things. If this is done, then they’ll hate you even more in the next vote. Play it smart and keep it cool for best results. Bribe early and often.
To top off all the stuff that can be done outside of battle, new characters can also be created. Dozens of different classes are available, but it isn’t vital to create too many. Enough characters automatically join through the schizophrenic storyline. This is with good reason, because for some inexplicable reason, each new character starts off at level one. As I previously mentioned, leveling up is a nuisance, and it’s even more difficult when at such a pitiful strength. Some stages are designed for leveling up by offering tons of experience points, although it’s never more than a band-aid to a more serious problem. I’m sure some people love getting as bang for their buck as possible, but this is just too high maintenance for my liking.
All this nifty side stuff can greatly extend a game that could otherwise be beaten in “only” 25 hours. Some of the sidequests are absolutely absurd with a difficulty level which makes the main quest seem like a tutorial. One day, while I’m on my deathbed, I’m going to wonder where my life went. Before I breathe my final breath, my life will flash before my eyes and I’ll realize I’ve played too many games. Long ones with tons of replay value, like Disgaea will turn out to be the main life waster. If only all the long games I’ve played were as enjoyable as this one, then perhaps my life wouldn’t be such a waste. Alas, that’s not the case.